Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Iranian Students are Hungry (My Advice to Students)

Probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip to Iran was the chance to interact with Iranian students… lots of them! Many of them were looking for advice (which I have included in the bottom of this post). Note that there are lots of good webpages for academics looking for jobs, such as the DISCCRS career resources webpage. Specifically for meteorology, AJ Jain has an entertaining and informative blog.

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Students in the Esfahan Geography department where I gave a talk on climate change and water. My host, professor Abolfazl Masoodian is in the red shirt.

It seems common for US graduate school departments to have more than half of their students from overseas. The bulk of them come from China and India but a disproportionate number come from Iran, especially compared to other Middle Eastern countries. For example, even though Egypt has more people than Iran, Iran publishes over double the scientific journal articles as Egypt and nearly eight times that of Saudi Arabia (never mind the isolation imposed on Iran, discussed previously). Over a million Iranians live in the US.

Not to generalize along racial and national lines, but the Iranian students I meet overseas are intelligent, hard working and eager to exchange ideas. I would add “well-dressed”, but when I asked an Iranian classmate what her fashion secret was, she said she shopped at The Gap. “It’s nothing special. It’s just that you Americans don’t know how to pick clothes that fit you well.”

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This student translator for the Traditional Water Management Conference in Yazd was a pip.

In Iran, many students were keen to meet a foreigner and practice speaking English. Many people wanted to pose for photos with me at conferences even though they didn’t know me or my work. A number of times this rapidly escalated into very hospitable invitations like “It would be my honor for you to stay at my house, have dinner with my family and allow my uncle show you the sights around our area”. I heard from Rick Steves “if you want to eat well in Iran, make some friends” and I now completely agree but more on that later….

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This student in Ahwaz (Fazel Almasi) took us out to desert to go camping and motorbike riding in the sand dunes. Here he is teaching me how to dress like a Basij.

Students in Iran seem to “get it” and want to get more. I have visited 15 countries so far this year and here more than anywhere else did the students seem to comprehend my lectures (a challenge in non-native English speaking countries). They asked questions on par with what I would get in Australia or the United States.

When it came to interactions, it was like they were hungry and I was food. It was typical during breaks for them to come introduce themselves and then engage to the point where they eventually had to apologize that the break was over and now my tea was cold (“It’s ok, it happens every time”).

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Mahdi Moayeri (left) is a PhD Candidate of Water Resources Engineering at the University of Tabriz. He asked good questions and captured my answers with a hand-held recorder. It’s an extremely good idea to keep notes with a digital recorder, even if it’s just your mobile phone. I would recommend bringing something like that to classes and meetings with your advisor.

Nearly all the students asked about how to get sponsorships to go overseas and here’s some of the advice I gave. My experience has been in hiring people for government jobs and for post doc positions. Personally, I don’t know that much about funding, but some Googling turns up some tips for students looking to get money to study in the US.

First, my priorities for skills in a candidate (most important first, not a complete list) would be 1. English communication (written and spoken), 2. Scientific computer programming and 3. Initiative and resourcefulness (e.g. being effective and proactive).

Don’t be afraid to have many people proof-read your application for grammar and language mistakes; it should be flawless. I have literally seen applications thrown in the trash because of poor English in the cover letter. Expect there to be a phone interview or Skype call to test your communication skills. Video is more personable than audio on Skype but nearly every Skype call I’ve had with a candidate had technical problems (which is itself a test for the candidate). Improve your English through practice and training. We met many people that would go down to tourist spots and talk with strangers (if they didn’t have enough money to pay for a course).

Find out what the local customs are in applications. In some countries, it is ok to have your photograph on your application, in others it is weird. It is illegal to ask for an applicant’s marital status, age, or religion in some countries although people hiring might try and guess it anyways (e.g. someone who graduated college in 1996 was probably born in 1996-22=1974). In a similar way, employers are only supposed to judge you on your provided materials, but it would be na├»ve to assume that they won’t Google you or try to find your photos on Facebook. Ask ahead how complete of a resume you should send- I have a 2 page and 20 page resume depending on the situation. Some people find applications with lists of personal hobbies endearing but unless it is something special (e.g. caring for orphaned sharks) or is relevant, it is better to leave that off.

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With engineering student Babak Rouhi Broujeni and friend after my talk on river forecasting at Shiraz University.   

For scientific computer programming, experience in Excel is not enough. Standard programming packages are R and Matlab. Knowing languages like Fortran, Unix and Java help. Don’t be afraid to include a clean, brief and well-commented example of an interesting computer program you’ve written. You get bonus points for knowing how to manage code like a professional, such as by using version control (e.g. SVN).

Contact others. I strongly recommend that applicants look for people that have been recently publishing in their field and contact them directly looking for advice. Many researchers would be happy to respond to a brief, well-written, and specific request for information. Aim for someone mid-career- very senior professors will not likely have the time to help you. Networking is extremely valuable, in part because it helps your application stand out among the others because of that personal contact.

However, be genuine and targeted in your networking, do not simply spam dozens of people with the same letter- prove that you already know something about the person you are contacting (e.g. “I am interested in doing research on Gloops. I enjoyed reading your recent paper in the Journal of Gloopology where you showed how Gloops could cohabitate with Nits. In my studies, I did a project on Nits. Are you continuing this line of work and, if so, what do you feel are the interesting open research questions?”).

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Enthusiastic students in Yazd

Think ahead about who can give you good letters of recommendation. There are many websites giving advice on letters of recommendation, but this is a special issue for developing countries where some are concerned about brain drain (i.e. students moving overseas and never coming back). We met people that were very good students but were also worried that their advisors would not support them. The professors we met were somewhat split on if it was respectable (or unpatriotic) to leave Iran. If moving overseas is what you really want, see what has happened to a professor’s previous students and how they were helped/held back.  

Realize that living overseas is not easy. Your parents no longer feed you, shelter you or do your laundry, for starters. But imagine how hard it is to develop meaningful friendships in a strange land. I have met many people working overseas that say they are lonely and alienated. We commonly heard things like “Those that have moved out write back saying that America is the land of easy money and excitement, but that they want to die in Iran because they miss their friends, family and culture”. For forming social networks overseas, I recommend joining clubs and group activities (e.g. Meetup). When I moved to Australia I joined groups for hiking and playing board games (two different groups, not at the same time) and it was surprisingly fun.

Some students were very eager to get suggestions for research topics for their Masters Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation. More than anything, I would take cues from your advisor on what he or she is interested in. Your advisor needs to be able to advise you and this is difficult if you have picked something far outside that person’s expertise. That said, Masters’ projects are often based on a work plan suggested by the advisor while a PhD project usually involves more independence and creativity. The standard is that by the end of your PhD, you should be the world’s authority on your specific topic.

To this, one student replied, “But my advisor doesn’t care what I do. He said that I should work on whatever I want.”  That student may want to go work with orphaned sharks and to ask for his diploma to be ready when he returns in four years.

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The photo is blurry because it was hard to get these energetic ladies at the Dust Conference in Ahwaz to sit still.

Ultimately, a big part of what I’ve learned about both forecasting and living/travelling overseas has to do with constantly honing one’s skills at collaborating and negotiating with others. I’ve heard you should focus on first, understanding, and then on being understood.  This especially holds true when you want to pick up stakes and move into another culture.

If you’re like me, you’ll know that things are going right when you feel a little outside your comfort zone, a bit unsure and anxious but always learning something new and building new skills for the long run. 

In other words, students, stay hungry. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Power Makers of Tehran

After the mysterious interrogation of a scientist’s wife in the elevator of the conference hotel, we kept on the lookout for anything unusual related to security. It is easy for a paranoid foreigner to imagine what kind of surveillance is happening, especially after seeing movies like “The Lives of Others” where someone sits on the other side of the wall wearing headphones. It makes for great breakfast gossip, in part because it is completely unverifiable. However, as they say, the world will never know the greatest thief (or undercover officer) because such a thief would never get caught. Kitty also said “I can’t imagine they’ve bugged our room… They haven’t even come to change the sheets in a couple days.”

 

However, my antennae sproinged straight out when I saw an entourage of guards with radios whisking a dignitary into the elevator one night. In the center of the phalanx was a large man wearing a floor-length pea coat thrown across his shoulders like a prize fighter’s cape. He had the giant stature of a Boris Yeltsin and the quiet confidence of a Vladimir Putin. After much speculation (politician? bureaucrat?) it turned out he was Abbas Aliabadi, the CEO of MAPNA Group, a power construction company worth $2.6 Billion. Little did I know at the time, we were going to have dinner with him the next night. 

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Quite charming and friendly, the CEO is to the right of the centerpiece. Kitty and I are to the right.

MAPNA was one of the top sponsors of the First International Conference on Dams and Hydropower in Iran, where I was invited to give a half-day training workshop and half-hour keynote lecture on river forecasting. There were around 75 sponsors from government, international organizations, and businesses. The conference went to great pains to pamper the VIP guests it had brought from overseas- the luxury was overwhelming. Do remember that much of my past experience was been with the US Government where so little as giving out a free bag of cookies draws an ethics investigation.

At times, I wondered what the value proposition was for the sponsors? Why would MAPNA’s CEO take time from his schedule to wine and dine (note: no wine in Iran) with scientists and show off all of the company’s projects from hydropower to locomotives? Where is all this money coming from? One colleague semi-sarcastically remarked “All this money comes from the consulting firms. The consulting firms’ money comes from government contracts. The government gets its money from oil. All the money in Iran eventually comes from oil.” 

Iran has a simultaneous defiance of and respect for authority. We VIPs had special dining rooms and were led past the red velvet ropes into the special seating areas during ceremonies. The front row was reserved for heads of government agencies and other A-list celebrities. The most honored participants were seated near the center. At the opening ceremony I sat in the third row-center; in front of me was the body guard for the cabinet-level minister in the first row.

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My view from the 3rd row of the back of the minister’s head.

It worked the other way too- the companies had promotional booths in the convention hall and those that donated the least were in a long exhibition tent outside in the snow. I made a point to go to the farthest booth down a dead-end wing of the tent, just to see what was there. The company representative leapt out and was so excited to get a visitor he asked to take a picture with me.

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Booths in the exhibitors’ tent.

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A clear glass scale model display of an Iranian dam project. This is the view upstream looking at the back of the dam. Around the side, you could see the outlet tunnels going through the walls of the canyon.

What may not be evident to outsiders is that, along with being a semi-democratic Theocracy, Iran is also a Technocracy, where technical specialists yield enormous power and there is a strong respect for science. The sanctions against Iran mean that many of the innovations and developments have to come from within. The educational system is very good, the science is high quality and the country is building major power projects like nobody’s business. In comparison, the US has all but stopped new hydropower projects, following a boom in building around 40 years ago.  

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One of Iran’s major dam construction projects.

There is enormous pride in this self-sufficiency, much like the student that paid his own way through an Ivy League college, using money from his menial jobs and sacrificing. That kind of student usually doesn’t brag how tough his life was, even if his roommate is a spoiled rich trust-afarian. Occasionally, some resentment comes out, such as when the ministers made mention of “satanic” and “arrogant foreign governments” scheming against Iran.

As an aside, my eyebrows leapt up on first hearing the use of "satanic” in a speech at the conference. Is that a regular word in people’s vocabulary? I thought something was getting lost in the translation. “Evil”, maybe, but “satanic”? That seemed awfully specific.

Consider for a minute how amazing this is. For example, I might complain how much a regular bicycle costs. But how much time and effort would I have to invest to make a bicycle from scratch? This is not just assembling other people’s parts, but fabricating the parts myself. And how far do you think that bike would ride before falling apart? Iran literally and metaphorically makes its own bicycles…. and its own locomotives… and its own hydropower plants.

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Water releasing from an Iranian reservoir

What kind of life do you think they would have if they didn’t have to do everything themselves? And if they didn’t have others working actively against them? What would someone like that be able to accomplish if given the right resources?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Into Africa

After Iran we went to Kenya and are now in Nairobi. Internet access here has been too unreliable to upload the backlog of posts and now the computer has to go in storage while we go trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.

Be sure to check back here in late March!

Tom

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Landing in Tehran

Our first impression of Iran came as the plane was landing in Tehran. Our disembarkation took about twice as long as we expected because the passengers were drowsily gridlocked on their way into the aisles, saying “You first”, “No please, you first”, “No, go ahead, I insist”, “Please no really, it’s okay”, “You are too kind. You first” and so on to infinity. Iranians are polite, almost to a fault.

This was worlds away from our recent airport transfer through Guangzhou. As soon as the plane’s wheels touched the ground, the China Air passengers bolted from their seats, crowded into the aisle and unloaded their overhead bins. The flight attendant shouted over the intercom “we have not reached the gate- you must sit back down immediately!” She raced up the aisle frantically, scolding passengers, but the riotous donnybrook wasn’t going to be contained. There was hair pulling and eye gouging… and that was just among the crew.

On arrival in Tehran we promptly queued unnecessarily in the Visa line (which was for people that didn’t yet have a Visa- how did those people even get on the plane?) Then we unnecessarily queued to declare our currency (we needed to show it in person- it was in our checked luggage and we hadn’t even queued up at the baggage claim yet).

Remember, the first rule of travel is “Do I need to be in this line?” Maybe it is genetic, but we willingly queue in every line we can find, only to discover we needed a stamp first or the gate has been changed or we were going in the wrong direction or we didn’t need to claim our luggage or actually we did need to go back to the start and get our luggage. We never learn.

By the time all that was done and we arrived at the immigration checkpoint around 3 am, we were nearly the last in line. Showing up last feels better than actually waiting in line, even though the outcome is the same if not worse. The local contact, Mr Zamani, was probably exasperated that we hadn’t arrived yet and looked noticeably relieved when he saw us. He enthusiastically greeted us from beyond the intake. Equally excited, I strolled past the short line to the other side of the checkpoint. The guard rose from his seat and hairy-eyeballed me until I sheepishly remembered my place.

I am still trying to think of what parallel universe that kind of security breach would be appropriate in. Come to think of it, I saw an elderly woman (in China, funnily enough) charge through immigration to hand a bag to her friend on the other side. When accosted, she shouted down the police until they let her have her way.

A few minutes later, after scanning our passports and entering all our information, the Iranian guard beckoned us to follow him away from his station. We were passed off to another guard and led into a comically large room with nothing but a small desk and an old computer. This was the fingerprinting station.

The guard looked over our passports and then typed in our names, passport numbers, professions and so on. He seemed impossibly slow, pecking out one letter, surveying the documents through the bottom of a set of bifocals, pecking out the next letter, then returning to the documents, having lost his place.

Between entries, he would pepper us with friendly chit-chat, e.g. “where are you from?” Since he already had our passports, I wasn’t sure if this was like how a policeman confirms your age and birthday to check if you are using a fake ID. Australia-America is our usual confusing answer. “Is this your first time to Iran?” What does our passport say?

“We sorry to do this, but America fingerprint Iranian citizen when they go to your country.” It was something we had become used to. Brazil, especially, singles out US citizens for harassment but they say on the immigration department website that they are just matching the procedures and fees that Brazilians endure when traveling to America (e.g. visas to Brazil for Americans cost four as much as visas for anyone else.)

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America also subjects foreigners to the Passive Millimeter Wave machine (this is the one we spotted in Newark)

I never quite understood the imagery behind the phrase “sight for sore eyes” but after 25 hours of flying, we probably caused anyone looking at us to wince. The bags under our eyes had their own carry-ons. Somewhere over Austria(?) we experienced what the pilot said was the worst turbulence he had seen in 15 years. The lunging and heaving caused our in-flight meals to become airborne. When the tomato sauce from her own dinner collided with her neighbor’s red wine, Kitty’s area ended up looking like a ruined bathroom stall at an Ozzy Osborne concert.

I wondered about liability in natural disasters. Imagine that Kitty’s dress was something like a house that had been flooded. Was it the pilot’s fault for not giving enough warning before turbulence set in (e.g. the government didn’t give an accurate flood forecast?) Was it the neighbor’s fault for spilling the wine (like a reservoir spilling over downstream during a flood?) Was it Kitty’s fault for putting herself in harm’s way (by living close to a river)? Was it nobody’s fault because it was an Act of God (and if so, who accepts the cost?).

Kitty wasn’t having any of it, however, crying “This is not ok! This is really not ok! Is everybody alright? Is that lady alright? Somebody wake her up to see if she’s alright!” When I heard her say to the stewardess “I’ll have you know I’m a journalist!” I though it would be best to spend the rest of the flight hiding under my seat.

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This is what the wine and sauce did to Kitty’s pillow and dress during turbulence. I think she was planning on submitting this photo as evidence of the disaster. 

Even though it was after 3 am, a delegation from the scientific conference was there to meet us outside the baggage claim. The meeting was the First International Conference on Hydropower in Iran and I was giving a keynote speech and a training workshop on river forecasting.

There were hand shakes and flashbulbs and quite literally a red carpet. Between Kitty’s splattered dress and my Unabomber-style hooded sweatshirt, our outfits had the feel of a prank or a cut-up ransom note. In the official welcome photo, I’m also holding the rice bags we have used to wrap around our luggage- although the bags are a little frayed at the edges, they’ve lasted us seven countries so far. We were whisked off to a private car for the 40 minute ride to the north of Tehran, not including the 20 minute turnabout when our driver realized we were going in the wrong direction.

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These rice bags are at the top of our list of must-have travel gear.

That night I was asleep even before my head hit the pillow.

In the morning, I woke up with one shoe on (or one shoe off if you’re a pessimist). I opened the blinds and took in a full panorama of the towering Alborz mountains, dusted white from fresh snow.

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The skyline of Tehran

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I’m Banned in Iran (Part 3) There was no Plan B

The night before, a scientist’s wife was accosted in the elevator by a man in a suit, asking if she was staying in the hotel and if she had any identification. This made her paranoid that the hotel was being monitored by the authorities. She carries two passports but Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. Apparently they monitor expatriates until they try and leave the country but are then detained (this is particularly true for scientists). Someone suggested that the man was with hotel security. However, the workers at the front desk didn’t know about any plain-clothes guards.

Kitty wrote me an email about the episode and within an hour our Gmail was shut down. We were completely shut off. We tried her computer, we tried my computer, her account, my account, no luck. She figured that she had tripped some kind of flag or tried to access too many banned sites and now we were in trouble.

So what did it take for us to consider leaving the country? Political instability? Missile strikes? Boots on the ground? Bah, it’s all just rhetoric and saber rattling, that doesn’t affect us.

But mess with our email? Oh snap, this just got real!

We had a month’s worth of travel ahead of us, four more cities to go to, no access to any more money, no printouts of contacts, and no hotel names where we had reservations. We didn’t even have an exit flight to our next destination because we only had a visa for 7 days (that we were trying to extend to 29 days after arrival but we weren’t sure it would be approved).

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Meanwhile, the TV had lots of historical video from the Revolution

Of course, as this blog always comes back in some way or another to river forecasting, I had flashbacks to my interview with Kristy Chandler about a simulated flood management exercise in the UK. My thought bubble had her talking about how people don’t usually anticipate how disasters can cascade, that when a flood (or earthquake or hurricane…) strikes, communication and transportation infrastructure also goes. This makes it hard to reach people during recovery operations.

Not even two months ago did I post the advice that it is good to have a backup plan and to occasionally test out that plan in realistic but safe conditions. For example, maybe you back up your computer’s files, but have you ever checked to made sure that the system works? Or do you just have faith that it’ll all work itself out somehow?

So do you have a plan if you, say, lost your wallet? Or your passport? Or your computer? Or all three at once? In a foreign country?

Perhaps the “do a dry run” advice falls apart in those cases where it is not actually possible to anticipate what the conditions will be when the plan is enacted. How do you prepare for something that has never happened to you before? For example, yesterday Kitty walked up to a horse and it bit her. We hadn’t practiced our being-bit-by-strange-horse-in-strange-country procedure in years!

We started using our local mobile phone and faulty memories to try and reconstruct our itinerary. Eventually the tech-savvy daughter of a local professor was able to pass on to us that Gmail was blocked for everyone in Iran. Indeed, more generally the block was on anything involving “https” in the address, which also includes Dropbox and most every search engine out there, such as Google and Yahoo.

This was done because the anniversary of the revolution was also the anniversary of uprisings in Iran several years ago (I remember the videos on US media of truncheon-yielding soldiers bashing students). Any underground communications about new unrest would be suppressed. The news anticipated that the internet would be back during Esfand, which translates to the western calendar as late February in several weeks.

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Kitty and me with Khamenei at the entrance of a tourist garden. I believe the poster was to encourage donations to a charity.

Without Google, we couldn’t even Google a way out of our problem. After lots of trial and error, I found that www.dogpile.com still worked. This was the search engine I used back in 1996 before Google was popular. At the time I was using Netscape as a browser. Come to think of it, I was also pretending to get tipsy from non-alcoholic beer and had to sneak off into the bushes to smoke cigarettes, so I guess not much has changed since high school.

Eventually I had to find an international calling card (remember those?) and phone my family (remember doing that?) to log into our accounts to get some information.

As predicted, Gmail returned during Esfand. We have voluntarily given up technology in the past (such as during 10-days of silent meditation in Nepal), but having it thrust upon us was a whole different story. In a strange way, it has been a blessing in disguise to be freed of email and to fully enjoy traveling for once (more about that later).

Aside from all the initial technology kerfuffles, we’ve felt entirely safe here (except for the biting horses). The people are unlike anybody else we have encountered. Iranian hospitality has been completely overwhelming and we have felt like accidental celebrities.

This year I wanted to travel so I could challenge my preconceived notions, both about the science of rivers and the world in general.

Nowhere else has challenged us like Iran has.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I’m Banned in Iran (Part 2) The News is Different Here

We were hosted the first week by the First International Conference Dams and Hydropower in Iran. I gave talks and training workshops on river forecasting and computer modeling along with my former PhD advisor Soroosh Sorooshian. We got complete VIP treatment as we hobnobbed with cabinet level ministers and CEOs from billion dollar companies. We even listened to a full orchestra perform a specially commissioned symphony about the water cycle.

The Tehran conference had tight security on us. Any request to go anywhere sparked a series of phone calls that marshaled an entourage of guards. For some reason, we always wanted to deviate from the plan and this would put our handlers in a frenzy. On one trip to the local bazaar, Kitty and I had three handlers and two drivers in multiple cars that took about two hours to arrange.

We imagined that they had security codenames for us:

Guard touches earpiece. “Fat Cat’s on the prowl. Lost her bell. We’re gonna need a leash for her. I repeat, looks like she’s going to pounce from her cage.”

I refuse to accept that my codename was “The Gray Wombat”. I deserve alliteration.

However, the first sign something was wrong was that my webpage was (and still is) banned. The Iranian Government has an Internet Filter and this display would come up instead of any forbidden websites:

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The translation is roughly “In the name of God, the compassionate, the site you are trying to access is in violation of the computer crimes law”. Within a few seconds, the site redirects to peyvandha.ir. Many news sites like the BBC, CNN and Daily Mail are banned. Strangely enough, sites like Drudge Report, Weekly Standard and CBS are still accessible. There is also no Skype.

During one of my talks at the conference, I mentioned that my site was blocked and a murmur went through the audience. Afterwards, a Russian friend corralled me and hushed that I should not joke about such matters, that this was a different type of country than I had been used to.

That night in our room we watched Press TV, Iran’s state-sponsored English-language news channel. Funnily enough, Press TV’s own webpage offers links to Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, all of which are banned. One also has to wonder who the audience for Press TV is… Compare, for example, who you think would watch a Farsi-language news channel sponsored by the US government (e.g. Voice of America)?

The broadcasting is nearly the mirror image of the US news. Let’s compare some typical stories…

US international news: videos of Middle Easterners in street battles with the police (the message being “try as they might, these brutal regimes can’t keep down the people that yearn for democracy and freedom”) and foreigners burning the American flag (“they still hate us”).

Iranian international news: videos of police spraying mace at US “Occupy protesters” (cf. above about brutal regimes) and an Israeli soldier using a gun to shove a Palestinian (with no context as to why the shoving was happening).

20120205_145612_thumb3Press TV’s soundtrack to this piece was ominous

That said, there is some (satirical) stateside recognition that Iran is concerned that the US might be building its 8,500th nuclear warhead.

The main difference between the two countries is the local coverage…

Iranian domestic headline: “Celebrating Female Iranian Scientists”.

20120205_145708_thumb4Video montage highlighting Iranian technological achievements. Note 3.5” floppy drive in the bottom left image.

US domestic headline: “Rescued dog bites TV anchor in the face during feel-good segment gone wrong.” (this story has 21,000 comments).

All of the conferences I went to had extensive media coverage. As a visiting scientist, I have done four TV interviews since coming to Iran, including one by a woman in head to toe black robes (a Chador).

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Here’s me being interviewed for the evening news

Anyhow, Press TV had lots of patriotic footage of the 33rd anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini returning from Parisian exile to revolutionize Iran.

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Historical video of the Iranian Revolution in 1979

There are full-sized banners of Khomeini and the current leader Khamenei nearly everywhere.

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A banner in the hotel entrance showing the famous plane disembarkation of Khomeini on arrival in Iran.

When I opened the door to the hotel room the second night of the conference, Kitty jumped up from the bed and said “I am so so SO sorry! I think I did something bad and got us in trouble with the government.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I’m Banned in Iran (Part 1) Sizing Up the Risks

[Greetings from Dubai! We’ve been in Iran for the last month and it has been hard to connect to the blog. The next few posts have been stored up and now we’re going to Nairobi where we hear the internet access is just as hard. Hopefully things will get back to normal in a few more weeks. Tom]

Before we came to Iran this month, we asked ourselves what it would take for us to reconsider our trip. The US state department has a standing advisory, warning against travel as of six months ago. Phrases like “U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran” translate to “You’re on your own, Buddy!”

When we told friends and family that we were going, the reactions ranged from “I’m so jealous” to “you must be out of your mind”. Reading the news is an addiction that runs in the family, and we got all kinds of geopolitical armchair analyses e.g. “The tensions in Egypt are high, but I would keep an eye on what’s going on in Syria, Greece and Afghanistan to know if you’re going to get in trouble.”

Sure enough, as we sat in the bar while waiting for our flight, the headlines were that all of those countries were going down the tubes- Syrian rebels were getting slaughtered, Greece was bankrupt (again) and bombs were going off in Afghanistan. The US sanctions were being ratcheted up because there has been a new breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear power program. Also, allies were trying to talk Israel out of firing missiles into Iran sometime this spring.

20120302_194539Probably not relevant to us?

Much like forecasters trying to interpret the raw data and the model outputs, we tried to come up with our own assessment of the situation. Kitty’s analysis was “Oh my gosh, did you know Iran is next to Pakistan? And all those people getting killed in Syria? That’s just one Iraq over!”

My take was that there were just so many levels of complexity to these issues that nobody but international affairs professionals would know what the real situation is. I certainly don’t think that politicians would announce in the media what their true strategies are… To Obama in a recent story about Iran, “[I] don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are”. Instead, announcements in the media are themselves strategic tools. This is one main difference between politics (or finance) and forecasting nature; Nature doesn’t care what you say or think about it, but revealing what you know about other countries (or companies) can change the reality of the situation.

Besides, earlier that week my mother showed me a newspaper that she had kept in my memory box. Below the fold was a photo of a six-year-old me doing something cute I suppose… Above the fold were a collection of panicked headlines that could’ve come from yesterday’s paper. Israel fires rockets into neighboring country… Ayatollah condemns US…. Modern military flounders in Afghanistan… Global economy on brink of collapse.

20120302_194525

We probably don’t need to worry about this headline either?

Eventually we decided that normal rules don’t apply to us so we might as well enjoy our invincibility while it lasts. As someone that has studied just how bad people are at sizing up risks (in the contexts of forecasting, natural disasters and decision making under uncertainty), I should know better. I figured that even if something bad happened, at least we’d get a good story out of it.

Much to our surprise, the unthinkable occurred two days after we arrived in Tehran. No doubt, we had braced for rough travel. For example, no American ATM or credit cards work in Iran so we had to bring a month’s worth of cash. The guy on the plane next to us literally had envelopes of money taped to his legs. Our assets would be frozen even if we tried to log into our accounts online because that would be a violation of the sanctions (Our bank: “Sorry, it’s not our rules, it’s the Office of Foreign Assets Control”… ). But we hadn’t been prepared for what eventually happened….